Last week, I went in to talk How Change Happens with a bunch of CEOs and other senior staff from major Catholic aid agencies,
including CAFOD, the first development outfit foolish enough to give me a job back in the 90s.
We covered a lot of the standard ground – the results agenda, private sector approaches to innovation, the future (if any) of traditional northern/international NGOs, what Brexit and the US election mean for our future work. But what most struck me was the realization that faith-based aid organizations are in some ways ideally placed to take advantage of some of the new thinking in aid and development. For example:
Norms: If you buy the argument that activists in general (and development organizations in particular) need to pay more attention to how social norms are formed and shaped, it’s hard to think who is better placed than faith-based organizations. Through worship, education etc they already play a major role in shaping and reshaping norms, so it should be much easier for them than for more technocratic, secular aid agencies (like Oxfam), to move across from a focus on policies and behaviours to something deeper. I was also struck by the level of Catholic collaboration with Islamic agencies, such as Islamic Relief, which could provide an interesting option of working jointly on norms (eg attitudes towards refugees and migrants).
Fragile States: The future of aid may well lie in the fragile and conflict-affected states and sub-states that will increasingly be home to the world’s remaining very poor people. By definition, state mechanisms in those places are useless, absent or predatory. In such situations, the role of non-state actors such as faith organizations becomes relatively more important in running society, managing disputes etc. Plus faith organizations are more likely to be in the really remote bits of those places, where the state barely penetrates (I still remember coming across itinerant evangelical preachers miles from the nearest road while on patrol with the Sandinista army in Nicaragua during the middle of the 1980s civil war). If international faith-based organizations can hook up with those local faith networks then, like Heineken, they really can reach the parts other do gooders cannot reach.
Transition out of aid: I have been banging on for a while now about how northern and international NGOs should invest more in helping southern organizations develop domestic sources of funding. That will reduce their vulnerability to the fashions of the aid business, and increase their local linkages and accountability. Turns out that the Catholics, at least, are already on it. When CAFOD agreed to help Caritas Nigeria start raising more money from Nigerians, they were so overwhelmed by the response they had to scramble more management support to help Caritas cope with the flood of donations. Caritas Peru has also become a highly effective local fund raiser with local affinity cards and all the rest.
Civil Society Space: I haven’t seen any research on it, but I’m pretty confident that secular CSOs are more vulnerable to closing civil society space than faith-based ones with large faith organizations behind them. Much harder to paint them as tools of foreign powers (except perhaps in countries with a Christian minority). So increasing support to faith organizations could be part of a response to the crackdown.
Of course I realize that faith-based organizations have their own problems (especially round all things to do with the body – being at CAFOD when it led the global Catholic response on HIV&AIDS was educational, to put it mildly), but I still think the overall balance could be positive and worth thinking about.